Friday, April 28, 2006

“We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose”.

This perceptive observation (variously rendered) by Mario Cuomo, a man who should have been President, is about to be confirmed right here in our beloved town. The condensed language form of poetry, the nuance and symbolism, and the multiple interpretations which result, must give way to more logical structures of language for the purpose of conveying clear meaning. In other words, we will now learn what John Shields meant when he talked about “putting the taxpayer first.”

After all, the taxpayer is not only the payer of taxes, but the recipient of the services those taxes pay for. Perhaps Mr. Shields was talking about services? Of course, our children do not pay taxes. So I suppose one could interpret Mr. Shields’ slogan as meaning that he wishes to put the taxpayers ahead of our children. We naturally shrink from such an interpretation. Didn’t Candidate Shields say “every child should have the best education available?” But as poetry becomes prose, all will be revealed.

What has emerged to date is a combination of fact and rumor. I offer them here because time is short and based on what is emerging, we need to decide whether we’re going to sit idly by while two elected officials make important decisions for the town, ignoring in the process the Town Meeting and the Warrant Committee.

The Selectmen will have an emergency meeting on Sunday evening at 7:30 to deal with the override question. Pressure is being placed on the Warrant Committee to develop a third budget, with a much lower override amount. Selectmen Mullen and Shields will refuse to place the Warrant Committee’s current recommendation on the ballot for the citizens to decide, irrespective of Town Meeting’s vote. An item has been placed on the agenda dealing with rescinding the trash sticker fee increase of a year ago, removing between $300,000 and $400,000 from the revenue stream, worsening an already serious situation. The Selectmen will seek a delay in consideration of the budget items until the second week of Town Meeting. This would effectively put off any override vote until after the end of school, and perhaps after many families have left town for summer vacations. And finally, it is rumored that an override of $1.5 million dollars might be considered, evenly split between the “town side” and the schools.

I have already written about the effects on town services of no override. You can review it by clicking on the article “Budget Blues” under the “Previous Posts” list to the left. When you’ve reviewed it, consider the additional effect of a rollback in trash sticker fees. The rumored $1.5 million override has the following consequences:

--It will raise taxes on Milton taxpayers

--Milton taxpayers will still see a significant decline in services, especially those with children

--We will be back in a similar budget crunch, likely next year, definitely by the following year

--We will almost certainly not be able to open the Collicot and Cunningham Schools in September of 2007

Why do we find ourselves in this position? More importantly, why are such severe consequences to the quality of life in our community so overwhelmingly in the control of two Selectmen?

The answer to the first question was clearly explained by Glenn Pavlicek 5 years ago as Chair of the Warrant Committee in the 2001 Town Warrant.

"The principal goal of any budget process is to balance the organization's expenditures with its revenue. Even looking at the problem at this large a level, we quickly find the fundamental problem that the Town of Milton is facing. Over the last few years, Milton has seen its revenues increase at a rate of about 3.5% annually. Indeed, if you examine the revenue chart inside the front cover of this warrant, you will see that, excluding the proposed override, the Town's revenue is again projected to grow at just under 3.5%. The problem is that, for Towns near Boston, this amount of growth is insufficient to maintain a constant level of service. The factor that the Commonwealth uses to maintain a constant level of service for Towns near Boston (a "Municipal Cost of Living Index"--if you prefer) is 4.7%. In simplest terms, this 1.2% differential means every year Milton's revenue comes up about $600,000 short of what is necessary to do what was done the year before."

We haven’t had an operational override in 5 years. At $600,000 per year in lost buying power, that comes to $3 million, just to maintain “a constant level of service.”

The answer to the second question should be deeply concerning to those who admire the Town Meeting form of government. In 1980 the citizens of Massachusetts passed Question 2, better known as Proposition 2 ½. This citizens’ initiative was a reaction to a decade of property tax increases averaging 7-8% annually. I think it was a reasonable reaction, although the 2.5% increase which became the standard was utterly arbitrary in its selection. The legislature had to come up with a mechanism for communities to trigger a vote of the citizens to increase taxes above 2.5%, since they recognized that such adjustments would be necessary. They determined that such a referendum should require the approval of the “local appropriating body”: and they then inexplicably named the Board of Selectmen as that body.

I say inexplicably because it was. For hundreds of years the dominant form of government in the New England states was the town meeting. It has been so in Milton for about 350 years. The Town Meeting decided all important matters for a community. Among these were all financial issues, including how much money would be expended and how it would be expended. In the last century or so the legislature required communities of a specific size to establish Warrant or Finance Committees, whose function is to study and advise on financial and other issues to be brought before the Town Meeting. So when the legislature placed the authority for calling override elections, as well as for the amount of the override, in the hands of Selectmen, it abetted the usurpation of hundreds of years of Town Meeting authority.

So today we are faced with the situation in which two people, elected Selectmen, can decide for the entire town if we have an override vote at all, how much the override will be, and even how those amounts will be allocated. Now this misguided section of the Proposition 2 ½ law doesn’t require that Selectmen ignore centuries old traditions of self-government. But it does give them the legal authority to do so. We can only hope that Selectmen Mullen and Shields, who make much of Milton tradition, can be persuaded to listen to the Warrant Committee and the Town Meeting and allow the taxpayers to decide whether they want to increase their taxes or cut services.

The rest of us have equally important decisions to make. The Town Meeting and Warrant Committees have to decide not to be bullied or have their prerogatives trampled. Citizens have to make their voices heard. As I studied the recent election results it appeared that some stayed home, including some school supporters. Need I say that it might be time to get up off the couch! This Sunday’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting will contain the usual portion of Citizen’s speak. I suggest you limit yourself to 3 minutes even though a majority of the current committee claims to not find such limits necessary.


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8:37 AM  

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